Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Memories of Usenet

Usenet is dead.

Usenet has been dead for a few years now.

Yeah, sure, there is this thing out there that works like The Pirate Bay using NNTP instead of BitTorrent packets, but that isn't the Usenet I knew and loved in the 1990s.

Usenet is dead.

Sure, you get a few crotchety oldtimers who get their panties in a bunch when you mention that Usenet is dead, just as you got people who denied the Amiga was dead for years and Japanese soldiers fighting World War II as recently as the 1970s. People often react to a loss or defeat with denial.

The last time I significantly used Usenet was back in the early 2000s. Before the college I was going to at the time set up Wi-Fi everywhere, allowing wireless internet access from my laptop, I would use Leafnode to download a number of Usenet newsgroups I would read during the day. I dialed up to my ISP (yes, I had dialup as recently as 2003), downloaded all the newsgroups I wanted to read, uploaded any posts I made while offline, and updated my local Usenet spool. I could then, over the day, read my daily set of new Usenet postings and post replies as appropriate.

I still kept this setup to read Usenet after they added Wi-Fi at school. I finally canceled my dial-up ISP, then did things in reverse: I would upload and download Usenet postings at school and read Usenet offline at home.

By then, alt.hackers, a fun little group about clever solutions to problems in the mid-1990s, was comatose and in its death throes., a newsgroup discussing methods to record audio, was still alive and well, but would soon get replaced by Gearslutz. comp.os.linux.* was already overtaken by spam and flame wars; Linux users had taken their discussions to /., Kuro5hin, among other places.

By 2004, I realized that little worthwhile discussion was still taking place in Usenet, and moved on to web-based discussion boards. The way to be a part of a community on the internet changed in the 2000s; I had my first blog in 2003 (back then, it was called a "journal"), got a MySpace account (my first social networking account) in 2005 and started this blog in early 2007.

Usenet is dead.

I remember the day I discovered usenet. It was in the fall of 1993, and I was at the computer lab of a university I just transferred to. I was on a Macintosh and saw this icon marked "newsreader", opened it up, and discovered Usenet. It was incredible. I could use a computer to connect to this worldwide network of computers and talk with anyone in the world about any topic I wanted to talk about. It blew my mind away.

I soon learned UNIX and the TRN newsreader because I didn't have a computer at the time (this was when a basic computer would set you back $2000; these days a basic notebook or desktop is about $400) and wanted to be able to read and post to Usenet all night--the only computer labs open all night were running UNIX.

The skills I learned spending so much time reading Usenet translated in to me getting a job at Netcom, then one of the most prestigious internet providers, a couple of years later. I saw the internet experience an explosive growth in the late 1990s, with Mosaic and later Netscape giving the internet a user-friendly GUI, but still read and posted to Usenet using the TRN client on my computer running Linux.

In was around late 1997 that I first discovered a forum I liked that wasn't a Usenet forum, a place where men and women both talked about relationships, sex, and personal details about their life the way nobody in Usenet talked about their lives. I found the place wonderful, particularly since it had a lot of girls; something Usenet never really had.

I also was told by a co-worker about Slashdot, got a 4-digit account in 1998 and starting reading and posting there.

I continued to read Usenet for many things throughout the 1990s, but with the discovery of web-based forums in the late 1990s, my interest in Usenet started waning and the number of interesting discussions Usenet used to have (or never had) moved to the web. I had a friend who gave me access to Usenet II in 1998, a late-1990s attempt to revive the Usenet of the early 1990s, but that never went anywhere and was little more than a hierarchy of empty newsgroups; the only active group there talked about Usenet II and making sure Usenet II postings did not make it in to ordinary Usenet.

Usenet is dead.

The last really interesting thing to happen with Usenet was when Google was able to, in 2002, recover the majority of pre-1995 Usenet postings from archives individuals had. It was interesting to finally read entire legendary ancient Usenet threads, such as the legendary 1992 "Linux is obsolete" debate and see what people had to say about BIND and other DNS servers in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Usenet is dead.

It was fun while it lasted, but the internet has moved on and, in truth, Usenet really wasn't that great. There was no moderation, so no way to keep flame wars or spam under control. It was a place with a lot of arrogance and elitism; a place where experienced users took a sadistic delight in flaming newbies (this was even worse in IRC, the 1990s version of MSN and instant messaging); a place where finding an answer to a technical question was a hit-and-miss affair. A place without graphics or multimedia; the interface was nothing more than ugly fixed-width text on an 80-column screen.

But, it was the best we had at the time and I thank you for letting this aging geek talk about the way things used to be.

Usenet is dead.

It's time to move on. I have a lot of things today I didn't have when I was a Usenet junkie in the mid-1990s: A girlfriend who loves me and who I love; a community of real friends in the United States who I keep in touch with via Skype and social networking sites. I also have an open-source project I am eager to finish up.

I just looked at the code for Deadwood, and I haven't quite finished up the compression code. Things look good, however, and I just need to do a little more last-minute touchup before the compression code is done.